A Want Ad for God

The press is still abuzz over Tim Geithner’s behind-closed-doors tirade against critics of the Obama administration plan to tighten financial regulation. As Mark Calabria writes below, Geithner offered a simple message to Fed chair Ben Bernanke, FDIC chair Sheila Bair, and others: “[Y]ou’ve been heard, so you were ‘included,’ now shut up.”

But while Bernanke, Bair, et al. quibble over details of the Obama plan, Geithner should be more concerned about the glaring flaw at its center: the idea that government can conjure up a “systemic risk monitor” that will identify and avoid future market bubbles.

Many of the great bubbles in financial history grew out of some belief that “everyone” (including financiers, politicians, and regulators) was confident was true, yet it turned out to be wrong (either because it was always wrong, or conditions changed in some unforseen way). Some examples:

  • The supply of Dutch admiral tulip bulbs was constrained though they were in heavy demand, so the 17th-century tulip mania was good investing.
  • The supply of land in the South Seas and the Mississippi Valley was fixed, so the 18th-century land-buying mania was good investing.  
  • The emergence of a nationwide U.S. marketplace in the early 20th century was a watershed event, so the post-WWI stock frenzy was good investing.
  • The emergence of the Internet marketplace, combined with path dependency and network effects, was another watershed event, so buying “dotcom” stock was good investing.
  • And of course, until the last few years,”everyone knew” that investing in real estate and mortgages was “safe as houses.”

That last bullet wasn’t just the belief of “greedy investment banks,” but also of government officials and regulators. My colleagues Peter Van Doren and Jagadeesh Gokhale have a forthcoming paper that notes, in part, that despite the populist rhetoric now being bandied around, banking is heavily regulated under international rules. However, those rules assume that investment in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities is low-risk (and indeed the rules push money toward those investments).

The paper also quotes numerous top-tier economists who claimed the soaring house prices of the past decade were supported by “the fundamentals,” or that a bubble wouldn’t threaten the broader economy. (Their paper doesn’t mention — but could — that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with their bureaucratic and congressional overseers, believed those firms’ investments in riskier mortgages were “safe as houses.”)

Everyone “knew” housing was a sound investment. It just turned out that everyone was wrong.

Hence the problem with a “systemic risk monitor:” Such a monitor would have to know when everyone is wrong — including financial experts and government analysts. And the monitor would need the power to force everyone to act contrary to their beliefs and instead obey the monitor’s judgment — and not fall prey to public and political demand that the monitor be replaced because “everyone knows” his judgment is flawed.

It seems the Obama administration is creating a position for God. But I doubt that God will leave his current job.

Someone might object: We wouldn’t have needed God to realize that there was a housing bubble over the past decade. But the problem with bubbles is that they only become apparent — and policies against them only become politically defensible — once they collapse.

And even then they might not be recognized. Consider another asset that experienced a dramatic price spike and collapse in the last decade: oil. Ah, someone might argue, there wasn’t really an oil bubble; we’re just experiencing a temporary decrease in demand. Oil is a scarce commodity with strong price inelasticities, and its price will soar over the long term. But the same was said of admiral tulip bulbs, and South Seas and Mississippi Valley land, and housing in high-demand areas.

What would happen if a systemic risk monitor were to come to Washington and immediately mandate that we abandon ”energy sustainability” policies because they’re premised on a bubble? Would he be right? Who would believe him? And would politicians and the public stand behind this judgment?